Last week I called out the Chronicle Herald for not disclosing that business columnist Peter Moreira has a financial stake in promoting the companies he writes about in his column. Two days later, associate publisher Ian Thompson announced that henceforth exactly such a disclosure would be attached to Moreira’s column. Good for Thompson. It was the right thing to do.
I published the first article before he got back to me, but King’s journalist prof David Swick weighed in via email:
Over the past twenty years the percentage of Canadians who trust journalists has fallen from more than 50 percent to less than 30 percent. Why such a low number? One reason, I believe, is that too many journalists are thought to be too close to power—ie. the people they write about—and therefore not independent.
For this reason, almost all journalism ethics codes insist on journalistic independence. And the best journalists go further, making sure to not only avoid conflicts of interest, but the appearance of conflict of interest.
Independence is one key part of journalism ethics; another is transparency. If a journalist is doing anything that might possibly be considered unethical, the best policy is to tell the readers—and let them decide.
My articles last week were making a narrow point:
[Moreira’s] columns have the appearance of falling behind the editorial/advertising fire wall, and with no indication otherwise, readers will assume that Moreira has no monetary interest in portraying the companies in a certain light. This is incorrect.
Today, however, I’ll talk about the broader issue of how economic concerns play out in the press, distort reporting, and contribute to the overall debasement of society.
Advertising: where the money was
For much of the 20th century, most North American cities had one or two large daily newspapers, maybe three TV channels, and a handful of radio stations. That was it for media. By the 1980s in the US, most of the two-paper towns had become one-paper towns, and most of the radio and TV stations were bought up by big national chains. There was a small market for the alt weekly press, and a few college radio stations, but that was about it for independent media.
This was the heyday for journalism. The big city papers had big newsrooms, full of hundreds of reporters. There were beat reporters for everything: police reporters, school board reporters, reporters covering the local planning commission, the Chamber of Commerce, you name it. And there were scores of full-time investigative reporters who had no daily deadlines to meet and could work for weeks or months on their investigations. They produced a lot of great journalism.
(Unfortunately, the exception to the general rule was found in the Maritimes. The Irving-owned New Brunswick papers and the horrid Chronicle Herald of the day were specifically criticized by the 1970 Davey Senate Committee’s Report on Mass Media.)
The reason the papers could do such good work is they made a lot of money, and could plow much of the profit back into operations. With very limited competition, media outlets could charge high rates for advertising—advertising that came with an additional premium because it was delivered directly to pretty much every house and business in the city. I never worked in TV or radio, but I know that profit margins for daily newspapers in rural California in the 1980s were as high as 30 percent annually. Because they spent so much on their newsrooms, the big city papers weren’t quite so profitable, but they still made serious cash.
Besides making a lot of money, there was an additional benefit from the advertising climate of the ’80s: Reporters and editors didn’t have to worry what advertisers thought about what was printed in the paper. Think about it. There’s one newspaper, just one vehicle for getting your display ad onto that breakfast table every morning. You may not like what’s in the paper, but you’re not going to shoot yourself in the foot by pulling your company’s advertising. So you suck it up and deal with it. Your ad stays.
This gave reporters great independence, and there were lots of ethical policies that reinforced that independence. There was a “firewall” between the advertising staff at a paper and the editorial staff, the reporters and editors. Editors didn’t consult with salespeople about what to put in the paper, and salespeople dared not show their face in the newsroom. And papers developed rules for reporters—banning them from accepting gifts from article subjects and the like—and rules for gathering news—one common rule is that the paper will pay its own way, and not accept payment from others.
These rules reflected the idealized version of newsrooms. Of course the rules were sometimes broken, and there were scandals and misdeeds committed, but without question there was a newsroom culture that respected the values of editorial independence, and it made for great reporting.
Enter the internet and advertorial
We can’t blame the internet entirely for the collapse of newspapers. By the early 1990s the big chains—run by business school grads, and not by experienced journalists—were cannibalizing themselves. Even profit margins of 30 percent weren’t enough for the new corporate overlords, so they merged newsrooms across huge geographic swaths, killed small town papers and replaced them with regional papers, and attacked the pressroom and editorial room unions, undermining both pay and performance. The internet didn’t really become a presence in most people’s lives until the mid- to late-1990s, and by that time too many papers had been reduced to a mere shell of their former glory.
But so weakened, the papers could not stand up to the new challenge to their advertising revenue. Suddenly, the near-monopoly of advertising was broken. Every cat blog in the land could install Google ads and earn a bit of cash. Savvy business people learned that instead of papering the entire town with ads, they could target specific demographics via the internet.
And now people no longer had to subscribe to papers; they could read them for “free” on the internet.
Nothing, however, is free. Everything comes with a price. While newspaper readers may not be subscribing directly, the money flows somewhere, somehow. And that affects what’s reported on, and what’s not.
One way newspapers have responded to the new challenges to their advertising base is break the ages-old firewall between editorial and advertising and embrace “advertorial.” There are other names for it—the New York Times calls it “native advertising,” The Coast calls it “involved editorial,” others call it “sponsored content” or “partner stories”—but they all amount to the same thing: Articles are written specifically with advertisers in mind. The old rules about not caring about what an advertiser thinks have been thrown out the window, and now advertisers have final say on the advertorial copy.
I left The Coast in part because the paper had embraced advertorial. As I explained earlier this year:
Advertorial goes against everything I stand for as a reporter. The editorial side of the news business—that is, the news reporting—should be separate from the advertising side of the paper because readers need to trust that reporters are not influenced by commercial concerns. You should trust that I’m willing to reveal information that may make an advertiser look bad, if that’s what it takes to do my job as a reporter.
Advertisers see advertorial as a specialized kind of advertising, valuable because it is written by professional reporters and placed in papers with a reputation for journalistic integrity. I don’t know how long that can last before readers lose their respect for the papers, but in the short term it brings in new revenue.
Publishers who embrace advertorial argue that they can keep the ethical lines distinct, but this really is a slippery slope. For example, a couple of weeks ago Advertising Age reported that:
The New York Times has shrunk the labels that distinguish articles bought by advertisers from articles generated in its newsroom and made the language in the labels less explicit.
Another example: over the weekend a Slashdot commentator reported that the Washington Post, which is owned by Amazon owner Jeff Bezos, “had begun embedding Amazon Buy-It-Now links in the middle of story sentences.”
For example, in this article, a sentence about the sales figures for differing covers of The Great Gatsby read: At Politics and Prose, the traditional [BUY IT NOW] version — featuring the iconic eyes floating on a blue background — sold better than the DiCaprio [BUY IT NOW] cover. This change follows the July news of much larger than expected losses at Amazon and a 10-percent decline in the Amazon’s stock value.
After an uproar from readers, the in-line advertising links to Amazon were removed, but we clearly see where this is heading. Consider that on the first day on the job, Stefanie Murray, newly hired executive editor of The Tennessean, oversaw the placement of a Page 1 story about an advertiser. Explains the Nashville Scene, the local alt weekly:
Yup, that’s a story about Kroger — one of the paper’s major advertisers — lowering prices here in Middle Tennessee. Seem a little out of place on the front page of the paper?
From the [Tennessean] story:
Wal-Mart may call itself the “Low Price Leader,” but the nation’s largest grocer, The Kroger Co., says it’s making its own stand on pricing, significantly lowering the costs of thousands of items in its Nashville-area stores starting Wednesday.”This has been an initiative of The Kroger Co. for several months, so now we’re rolling it out in (Nashville),” said Kroger Nashville spokeswoman Melissa Eads. “These are not items that are on sale just this week; they are new everyday low prices.”
Still worse, after a hapless Tennessean employee running the paper’s twitter account tweeted that readers should “bypass Kroger” and buy locally grown vegetables directly from farmers instead, the tweet was deleted. Murray told the Nashville Scene that:
I felt that tweet was inappropriate because it seemed to say something poor about a business, which we shouldn’t and wouldn’t do about any businesses from a Tennessean account.
A paper shouldn’t say “something poor about a business” because the business advertises in the paper? Good-bye editorial independence. It was nice to know you.
PR for the corporate state
As bad as all the above is, I still haven’t gotten to the heart of my problem with advertorial: it embraces a world view that can not even envision a critique of the powerful, much less articulate it.
The old idea that journalists should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable still resonates and, I argue, is the true purpose of a free media in society. We don’t need newspapers for advertising anymore—like I said, every cat blog has advertising. We don’t need reporters swirling about deals at the local grocery store—there are 4.1 PR professionals for every one journalist in Canada. If every newspaper disappeared tomorrow, rest assured that the public would still get a steady flow of advertising and corporate spin.
What we do need reporters for is to speak truth to power, to call out bullshit, to advocate for the powerless.
And yes, sure, advertorial-based media outlets are happy to flog a politician caught with his hand in the cookie jar, or to publish articles about social problems. What they’re not interested in doing is challenging or acknowledging the broad sweep of neoliberalism across our culture and society.
Peter Moreira’s column is a tiny data point in the advertorial-based media cosmos. His job is to promote companies, and he’s paid by the government to do so. Rightly or wrongly, the government has a certain agenda in promoting those particular companies with those particular amounts of financial support—a free press would question the assumptions, report critically on the issues, challenge the programs. But the Chronicle Herald is doing none of that. Rather, by publishing Moreira’s columns, the paper serves as an arm of the government.
There are so many other examples I don’t know where to start. Here’s an issue I’ve been screaming into the wilderness about for many years: the sale of naming rights to public facilities. Used to be, we had high corporate taxes (and a steeply progressive income tax) that paid for decent municipal facilities like rinks and arenas. But with the implementation of the neoliberal agenda over the past 30 years, corporate taxes have been slashed, and we do it all backwards. We build things like a four-pad arena in Bedford at a cost to the taxpayer of $50 million, turn around and sell naming rights for the building to a bank for a measly $100,000, and then praise the bank for being a “good corporate citizen.” For a media outlet to simply accept the nomenclature—to call the facility the “BMO Centre” instead of the “four-pad arena in Bedford”—is to accept not just the framing around selling naming rights, but also the tax policies that have led to the need to adopt the policy in the first place, and the PR spin of companies that work to cut their own taxes while selling themselves as “good corporate citizens.” It’s all of a piece.
The broader point is that once you’ve based your business model on attracting big corporate money, and once you’ve signalled that you’re willing to chuck all the old-school ethical lines separating editorial and advertising, your independence and integrity are toast. You’re simply the PR wing of the corporate state.
This has been the agenda of neoliberalism since Reagan and Thatcher: slashing corporate taxes, cutting regulations, privatizing government services, the glorification of greed, pushing the absurd notion that the market can solve all problems, the financialization of everything, and on and on. Getting the supposedly “free” press on board is the coup d’etat. The game’s over.
I started the Halifax Examiner as a subscription-based news site precisely to avoid the problems inherent in advertising. This article, however, is in front of the pay wall, so available to anyone. If you would like to subscribe, click here.